Google Employees Fear China Project Continues

News last year of ’s “Project Dragonfly,” a - and -enabled search engine designed to facilitate the company’s return to the Chinese market, triggered a strong backlash among employees. Some left in protest, while many more organized to express their discontent. The project, combined with other issues like the company’s handling of sexual harassment, likely contributed to the findings of an internal poll released last month, which showed strong but notably declining confidence in Google’s leadership and priorities.

Project Dragonfly’s apparent closure in December did not lay internal concerns to rest, according to The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher, who reported this week that employees have been watching for signs of ongoing work on Project Dragonfly:

The employees identified about 500 changes to the code in December, and more than 400 changes to the code between January and February of this year, which they believe indicates continued development of aspects of Dragonfly. […]

Google sources with knowledge of Dragonfly said that the code changes could possibly be attributed to employees who have continued this year to wrap up aspects of the work they were doing to develop the Chinese search platform.

“I still believe the project is dead, but we’re still waiting for a declaration from Google that censorship is unacceptable and that they will not collaborate with governments in the oppression of their people,” said one source familiar with Dragonfly.

[…] “Right now it feels unlaunchable, but I don’t think they are canceling outright,” [former Google engineer Colin] McMillen said. “I think they are putting it on the back burner and are going to try it again in a year or two with a different code name or approach.”

Anna Bacciarelli, a technology researcher at Amnesty International, called on Google “to publicly confirm that it has dropped Dragonfly for good, not just ‘for now.’” Bacciarelli told The Intercept that Amnesty’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo had visited Google’s Mountain View headquarters in California last week to reiterate concerns over Dragonfly and “the apparent disregard for transparency and accountability around the project.” [Source]

After Google dismissed the story, Gallagher tweeted:

At The Washington Post, Cat Zakrzewski noted that Gallagher’s report could bring renewed congressional scrutiny:

Google said in December it had no plans to launch the Chinese search engine after a groundswell of employee objections. But that was after lawmakers from both parties had warned the company about the serious national security and privacy implications of Dragonfly, which they said could make the company complicit in the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and surveillance practices.

Any indication that Google is actually continuing to work on the project in secret could damage the company’s position in Washington or even prompt new congressional inquiries.

After all, Google promised to be upfront with policymakers about plans to enter the China market. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said during a December hearing the company would “fully transparent,” including with policymakers, if the company ever did pursue search in China.

[…] New questions about Dragonfly only add to the firestorm Google is facing in Washington over human rights. A group of lawmakers called on the company last week to remove a Saudi government app that allows men to track women’s locations from its app store. However, Insider reports the company is refusing to do so on the grounds that it does not violate its terms of service. [Source]

The company was already facing continued pressure from shareholders, even after ’s apparent abandonment. Last month, Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson and Gerrit De Vynck reported on a shareholder resolution echoing earlier calls for transparency:

The proposal, which [investment firm Azzad Asset Management] seeks a vote on at Alphabet’s shareholder meeting later this year, asks the company to publish a Human Rights Impact Assessment that would examine “the actual and potential impacts of censored Google search in China.”

“Shareholders are concerned by a growing gap between Google’s stated values and actions, generating global controversy and presenting significant risk,” the investment firm said in the proposed shareholder resolution.

[…] Shareholder resolutions cannot pass at Alphabet without the backing of founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who control voting rights through a special class of shares. But [Azzad investment communications director Joshua] Brockwell said he hopes Alphabet will voluntarily take action to address Azzad’s concerns prior to the shareholder meeting. If the issue isn’t addressed, a vote by shareholders would send an important signal even without majority support, Brockwell added.

Azzad developed the proposal with input from Google employees working with advocacy group Coworker.org. Azzad also got help from nonprofit Open MIC. [Source]

Opposition from employees, shareholders, and U.S. politicians may not even be the greatest obstacles to Google’s successful return to China. CNN’s James Griffiths, who examines the company’s previous attempt in his forthcoming book “The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet,” to be published on March 15, wrote soon after the news of Project Dragonfly’s apparent end that:

While leaks and reporting about Dragonfly undoubtedly sped up its demise, few observers outside the Silicon Valley bubble thought the project had much of a chance: if it had overcome opposition within Google, it would have eventually run afoul of US regulators or the very Chinese censors the project was designed to ameliorate.

We know this because Google has been here before. In the 2000s, Google spent years attempting to thread the needle of providing a useful — albeit censored — search engine to Chinese users while staving off demands for greater and greater control from Beijing and criticism from US lawmakers and international human rights groups.

[…] The failure of Google.cn was a pertinent example of Beijing’s unwillingness to compromise when it came to censorship, even for one of the world’s biggest companies. And that was in 2010 — the environment Google would have entered today would have been a far more hostile one, with a vastly empowered censorship and surveillance network, and a government even less willing to brook defiance from a foreign interloper.

[…] The compromises made for Dragonfly were reportedly even greater, but they too would likely not have been enough. Either Google could have continued to play ball — giving up more and more user data and making more and more compromises on content, just as Chinese companies do — or it could have taken a stand, and been ejected all over again. [Source]